Wednesday, December 19, 2012

Denver and the battle for West Coast skiers

Group buys major stake in Whistler


DENVER, Colo.—It can be viewed as a cross-town rivalry in Denver playing out on the West Coast. KSL Capital Partners last week announced purchase of an 18 percent stake in the Whistler Blackcomb ski area, North America’s largest and busiest resort.

KSL already has two ski areas in California—Squaw Valley and Alpine Meadows—in addition to many other travel and leisure properties. Key figures in the company include former executives at Vail.

The Denver Post drew the obvious conclusion that with its new stake in Whistler, KSL might be in a position to package loyalty ski passes to counter the powerful Epic Pass offered by Vail Resorts. Epic Pass buyers have three ski areas in the Lake Tahoe area and five more in Colorado.

In response, several ski areas this year banded together to create a pass that might be called friends with benefits. Included are Aspen/Snowmass, Jackson Hole, Alta and the two KSL ski areas in California.

Also this year, Crested Butte and Telluride announced a similar pass. Monarch, another Colorado ski area, has a similar deal involving ski areas in New Mexico.

The transaction involving Whistler involves three ski companies, all based in metropolitan Denver-Boulder: Vail Resorts, KSL and Intrawest. Founded in Vancouver, Intrawest for a time owned Whistler outright. KSL purchased Intrawest’s remaining shares.

KSL’s direct representative will be Eric Resnick, a former executive with Vail Resorts from about a decade ago. There, he worked with Roger McCarthy, who then was the chief executive at Breckenridge and, later, also at Keystone. Then, as now, they are owned by Vail Resorts.

“I think it’s the community of Whistler and the company that came out the big winners on this [share sale],” McCarthy told Whistler’s Pique Newsmagazine. “These are quality, classy guys. If you look at the resorts they own, the hotels they own, in terms of service levels they are at the higher end of the bracket. Quality, service and price.”

This leaves Intrawest with six ski areas, including Steamboat and Winter Park in Colorado, plus Tremblant, Stratton and two others in the East.

In 1996, Intrawest was one of three big ski areas that appeared to be ready to dominate the ski industry. The others were Vail Resorts and a company from New England called American Skiing that was expanding into the West.

In 2008, American Skiing sold its final property, The Canyons, and went out of business.

But Vail has continued to expand, and last week announced the purchase of two more small ski areas in the American Midwest to serve as what might be called farm teams. One serves Detroit, and the other Minneapolis-St. Paul.

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